What is liberalism?

Whatever it is, there’s more to it than David Laws would have you believe.

I was irritated by a piece Julian Glover wrote in the Guardian last week and meant to blog about it. An excellent post by Stuart White over at Next Left gives me an excuse to do so belatedly.

Glover was upbraiding Andrew Adonis, whom he described as "a liberal shoehorned into a statist party for the achievement of political purpose", for daring to criticise the decision by the Liberal Democrats to enter into a coalition with the Tories. Adonis had described the coalition as "unprincipled"; Glover appeared to suggest that there was no philosophical basis to Adonis's attack:

The differences within parties have often been as great as the differences between them. Adonis, a former Lib Dem, knows that. His objection -- like the predictable complaints of those Scottish former leaders Kennedy and Steel -- is not that Clegg did a deal, but that he did one with the wrong side. It is striking how the most vocal Labour critics of the coalition are New Labour: as if they mourn being cast adrift in a party whose deeper instincts they know only too well.

Yet the Lib Dem leader got better and more reliable terms from the Tories than he could have [had] from Labour; and, more than that, he has formed a government of broad ideological coherence, which he could not have done with an interim administration led by Gordon Brown.

This is, at its core, as much a liberal administration as a Tory one, joined by a shared scepticism about the effectiveness and financial sustainability of the centralised state.

There's a rather narrow understanding of liberalism implied here, though it is one that is consistent with that of the Orange Book faction of the Lib Dems, who, in the persons of David Laws and Nick Clegg himself, now hold sway in the party (and, indeed, in the coalition). Stuart White offers an excellent summary of this strain of contemporary liberalism:

Their thinking rests on some definite, strong -- albeit rather unexamined -- philosophical assumptions. Reading someone like David Laws, for example, there is at times a clear sense that the free market produces a distribution of income and wealth which is a kind of natural or moral baseline. It is departures from the baseline that have to be justified. Laws and other Orange Bookers are of course not libertarians, so they are prepared to allow that some departures -- some tax-transfers/tax-service arrangements -- can be justified. (This is the sense in which they remain social liberals, albeit not egalitarian ones.) But the presumption, for Laws, is clearly for "leaving money in people's pockets".

White's most important point is that there are resources in contemporary liberal political philosophy for a much more egalitarian, redistributive vision -- a vision of social justice, in other words. The basic assumptions of Orange Book liberalism, White says,

run completely counter to one of the basic claims of contemporary liberalism as developed in the work of such as Rawls, Dworkin and Ackerman.

For these thinkers, the "free market" is simply one possible "basic structure" for society along with an indefinite range of other possibilities. It has no morally privileged position. So how do we choose which "basic structure" to have? Their answer is that we try to identify principles of social justice and then design a basic structure -- including, if necessary, appropriate tax-transfer arrangements -- to achieve justice so understood. On this view, taxation and "redistribution" are not invasions into people's pockets, a taking of what is presumptively already, primevally "theirs". Tax transfers are a way of ensuring that people do not pocket, through the market, more (or less) than they are genuinely entitled to. Tax-transfer schemes define entitlement; they do not invade it.

Simplifying a little, one might say that for these liberal thinkers, it is not the free market that is the appropriate, morally relevant baseline, but equality: it is movement away from equality that has to be justified, not movement away from a free-market distribution.

And, Glover's little lesson in history and philosophy notwithstanding, this is something Andrew Adonis understands very well; though he is less likely to invoke Rawls, Dworkin or Ackerman than the great "social liberals" of the early 20th century -- men like J A Hobson or L T Hobhouse. As Hobhouse put it in his 1911 masterpiece, Liberalism, "The 'right to work' and the right to a 'living wage' are just as valid as the rights of person or property."

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Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired Battersea power station in 2012. Initially, it promised to build 636 affordable units. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers already having failed to develop the site, it was still enough for Wandsworth council to give planning consent. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls.

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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